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Trek to the Sunset's Outerlands for inventive New American fare 

Wednesday, Sep 9 2009
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There aren't many reasons for foodies to travel to the outermost reaches of what's already termed the Outer Sunset, especially those last few blocks before the Great Highway that grow increasingly bleak, windswept, and foggy at times. But early this year a cozy spot sprouted on the corner of Judah and 45th Avenue that rewards the intrepid (as well as its neighbors) with its unique setting and cooking. Outerlands, a labor of love for its owners, artists David Muller and Lana Porcello, references its surfside setting with walls that are covered with carefully pieced-together driftwood. Surfer pals, enamored of Porcello's homemade soups, first encouraged the couple to open a restaurant.

The setting is simple, as is the service. Straightforward wood tables and chairs, and not very many of them, are in a casual space dominated by the open kitchen. As for the service, you order at the counter and pick up your own silverware, napkins, and water. But the initial plan to open a homey organic soup kitchen with house-baked bread evolved way beyond that. The food can still be called homey, but it's a sophisticated, multicultural home that uses local, organic, and sustainable ingredients ("whenever possible," the popular menu caveat).

The open kitchen at Outerlands turns out delicious food for the traveler. And you feel like you've traveled. At my first lunch, both the setting and the owners' work ethic — the early risers bake the bread, pies, and cakes daily — reminded me of flinty, idiosyncratic places in Vermont. When several of us returned for dinner, the hanging plants over the counter, the swirling arrangement of the driftwood on the back wall, and the generally beachy ambience reminded us of hippie cafes in Santa Cruz. Both times we felt like we'd taken a revivifying vacation within the city.

The brief lunch menu is written on paper taped to the counter. There's a daily-changing soup, a sandwich or two, a couple of salads, pies, and brownies. The midday meal is very bread-based: The sandwiches are hearty, often open-faced, and topped with grilled cheese; the soup comes with big slices of toast. Outerlands' wonderful levain has a delicate crumb under its crackling crust.

At night, there's a much longer printed menu of about a dozen dishes that you can peruse while you wait for a table, which you probably will, unless you arrive when the doors open at six. Most of the 10 or so tables are deuces, and there's only room at the front of the place to combine two or more of them for larger groups. At a weeknight dinner, three of us ended up sharing the only large table with a party of two in an ad hoc communal arrangement.

Even though more bread will arrive if you order soup (and you should), don't miss the levain toast ($2.50) — it comes with fat roasted garlic cloves in a saucer of good olive oil, making a sweet yet pungent spread. All three soups that we had over two meals were superb, and were served in a generous bowl: a creamy, vegetarian puréed celery soup sprinkled with crunchy breadcrumbs ($6), an heirloom tomato soup glistening with fresh basil oil ($6), and a silky tortilla soup thick with shredded chicken and fresh corn kernels, expertly seasoned with cilantro and lime ($7 for a bowl, $9 for a bigger bowl).

Salads were inventive and perfectly balanced. An arugula salad ($8) boasted sliced strawberries, champagne grapes, toasted walnuts, Point Reyes blue cheese, and a champagne vinaigrette that actually tasted sparkly. A salad of red, yellow, and orange heirloom tomatoes ($8), in both slices and chunks to add textural interest, along with lemon cucumber, was dressed with basil, a strong aged balsamic vinegar, bright plump capers, and crunchy Maldon salt. Roasted beets ($8) were marinated in orange juice and topped with crumbled queso fresco and toasted almonds.

Meals here go from strength to strength. (The gifted young chef, a veteran of Range and Serpentine, chooses not to be named.) At dinner, we shared all three dishes that might be considered main courses — a fish stew, a savory galette, and beans braised with pork shoulder. They featured totally different techniques, yet all shared an aesthetic: hearty yet delicate, good ingredients handled impeccably, with exquisitely considered flavors. At the end of the evening, we realized we'd never reached for salt or pepper. The stew ($13.50) included mussels and clams in the shell, Arctic char, shrimp, and squid rings in a light, spicy tomato broth fragrant with fennel that was entirely different in character and flavor from the rich tomato soup we'd also had that night. The galette ($8.50) was a big slice from an open-faced pie covered with stewed gypsy peppers, cipollini, and Boccalone soppressata, topped with a fried egg, and sided with a tangle of frisée. Its pie crust deserved a county fair ribbon.

Cranberry and cannelloni beans cooked until they were creamy but still a little resistant to the tooth came in a ramekin with luscious chunks of braised pork entwined with onions ($10). It was the apotheosis of pork and beans. A side of floury roasted potatoes ($7) had more roasted garlic cloves and was draped with braised greens. The baked macaroni and cheese ($6) was fusilli cloaked in a rich sauce.

The wine offerings (about a dozen, $6-$7 glass, $24-$30 bottle) are mostly organic, Biodynamic, or certified sustainable. The daily-changing beer list is chalked on a board above the counter. The group vacating our table urged us to try the Pliny beer ($8), but the counter guy told us they'd drunk it all up, so we tried a Hennepin ($6) instead, served in a Mason jar, and liked it so much we ordered another.

Three desserts were on the chalkboard, too. Lightly poached fresh pears came in a rich caramel sauce served with ice cream ($7). Even better was an unusual red velvet cupcake made with fresh beets, with buttery cream cheese frosting ($6). And a huge portion of chocolatey mocha cake, very light under its sugar-sprinkled crust, came with just-whipped cream and a few bright red raspberries ($7).

We'd had a feast, sampling much of the menu, and still came in at about $45 a person, including tax, tip, two glasses of 2007 La Cabotte Côtes du Rhone, and two beers. But you can eat well for much less: the couple sharing our table had two salads, the mac 'n' cheese, and the tortilla soup, and departed well-fed. One of the pair, a surfer, told us he lived nearby, on the Great Highway. We envied his proximity to Outerlands.

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Meredith Brody

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